The Renaissance

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What were the causes of the Renaissance? Explain the differences between the Italian and Northern Renaissance.

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There are myriad explanations for the Renaissance (ca 1300–1600). The term "Renaissance" literally means "rebirth." What was reborn? An interest in ancient Greek and Roman literature, science, and art spread across Europe.

Historians are able to agree on some of the causes for—and propagation of— Renaissance thought. However, it is difficult to make firm conclusions about causation of a movement as vast and sweeping as the Renaissance.

The invention of the printing press in 1440 brought profound changes to Europe. Hand-written books were rare, so the new invention and the establishment of universities and libraries enabled many more people to read.

Also, 1453 saw the end of both the Byzantine Empire and the Hundred Years' War. After the fall of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, many of its scholars and their books relocated to Western Europe. Also, the end of the war between England and France enabled Western Europe to devote more resources to arts and the humanities.

The role of Italy in the renaissance was crucial. Petrarch, Leonardo da Vinci, and many other geniuses of the Renaissance were Italian. Northern Italy became urbanized sooner than other parts of Europe, and the cities' leading merchant families became patrons of the Renaissance.

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There were numerous causes of the Renaissance. The fall of Constantinople to Muhammad II in 1453 A. D. is considered the first of those causes. The fall of the Byzantine Empire gave rise to the Renaissance. Many Greek scholars and artists, who lived in Constantinople prior its fall, left the city and relocated to cities in Italy where they began to instruct the aristocracy, teaching history, geography, astronomy, mathematics, and the arts.

When Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, invented the movable type printing press in the mid-15th century, it caused a revolution in the sharing of ideas and printed materials. One of the first uses was to reprint copies of the Bible. Previously, the manuscripts were copied laboriously by hand. Scholars, politicians, scientists, and religious institutions employed the printing press to copy and disseminate information in a more timely manner.

Learned men such as Roger Bacon of Oxford University and Peter Abelard of the University of Paris encouraged people to question things, to investigate and experiment, instead of blindly accepting information. When royalty and the aristocratic class accepted revolutionary ideas, the Renaissance flourished. Henry VIII, king of England, Francis I of France, and Charles V of Spain encouraged new investigations in art, history, science, and geography, allowing for new thoughts about old ideas.

There were differences in the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance occurred in Eastern Europe in countries such as the Netherlands. It had ties to the Protestant Reformation and politically inspired the growth of independent nation-states. The Northern Renaissance focused on the lives of the everyday man. Naturalistic artwork, usually oil on panel, depicted peasants in their work, were portraits of the common man, and portrayed religious scenes. In addition, the Northern Renaissance upheld its Gothic influence for a longer period than that of the Italians. The geographic locale also had an influence in the artwork. Examples of stained glasswork are more common due the need to keep out the elements of nature in churches and castles. In addition, the religious movement in the Northern areas was more revolutionary, perhaps because of the distances from Rome. The artwork became more and more nonspiritual.

The Italian Renaissance focused on wealth and aristocracy. There was a thriving Mediterranean trade which led to a wealthy class who became patrons of the arts. They influenced learning and exploration. These values became evident in architecture and artwork. The artwork of the Italian Renaissance focused on religious and mythological images with a symmetry that was not evident in the Northern works. This artwork focused on Humanism and often revealed an intelligence for the human anatomy. Commonly used mediums were fresco, tempera, and oil.

The wealth and influence of the Catholic Church provided great inspiration and monetary support for the arts during this time-period. Popes and many clergymen were wealthy men who influenced beliefs, which was evident in their writings and depictions of religious scenes in important buildings, churches, and homes. The Italian Renaissance was closely tied to the church while the Northern Renaissance became more secular and focused on reformation.

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